June 2, 2010
Science Daily/University of Manchester
People who meditate regularly find pain less unpleasant because their brains anticipate the pain less, a new study has found.
Scientists from The University of Manchester recruited individuals into the study who had a diverse range of experience with meditation, spanning anything from months to decades. It was only the more advanced meditators whose anticipation and experience of pain differed from non-meditators.
The type of meditation practised also varied across individuals, but all included 'mindfulness meditation' practices, such as those that form the basis of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), recommended for recurrent depression by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) in 2004.
"Meditation is becoming increasingly popular as a way to treat chronic illness such as the pain caused by arthritis," said Dr Christopher Brown, who conducted the research. "Recently, a mental health charity called for meditation to be routinely available on the NHS to treat depression, which occurs in up to 50% of people with chronic pain. However, scientists have only just started to look into how meditation might reduce the emotional impact of pain."
The study, to be published in the journal Pain, found that particular areas of the brain were less active as meditators anticipated pain, as induced by a laser device. Those with longer meditation experience (up to 35 years) showed the least anticipation of the laser pain.
He said: "The results of the study confirm how we suspected meditation might affect the brain. Meditation trains the brain to be more present-focused and therefore to spend less time anticipating future negative events. This may be why meditation is effective at reducing the recurrence of depression, which makes chronic pain considerably worse."
Dr Brown said the findings should encourage further research into how the brain is changed by meditation practice. He said: "Although we found that meditators anticipate pain less and find pain less unpleasant, it's not clear precisely how meditation changes brain function over time to produce these effects.
"However, the importance of developing new treatments for chronic pain is clear: 40% of people who suffer from chronic pain report inadequate management of their pain problem."